The Distraction-Free Life?

Maybe the challenge of modern life isn’t external distractions, but our lack of practice with concentration?

I learned to concentrate when I was 15, as part of my dream of playing in the NBA. I read a book by Larry Bird to help me. I didn’t make the NBA (no surprise) and don’t remember much about the book (the cover was green, like the Celtic’s uniforms!), except for this advice on concentration:

You can sit or lay down. Once  you are in position, close your eyes and relax. Just sit there for a minute and think about anything you want. After about a minute, start thinking about the neighborhood or subdivision in which your home is located. In your mind see your neighbors houses, the  roads, the streets, the trees. After you can see your neighborhood  clearly, move down the road your house is on and see the houses along the way…

When you begin, you will only be able to concentrate for a few seconds or minutes. If you work at it every day, though, you can build your concentration just as you can build the strength in your arms.

From Bird on Basketball: How-To Strategies from the Great Celtics Champion

When I hear someone say “I get easily distracted” I always think of Larry Bird’s advice. Maybe they haven’t practiced concentrating enough to earn the ability to control where their attention goes?

I heard recently about Hemmingwrite, a distraction free writing device, as if it’s the devices we currently have that hold people back from writing the novels of their dreams. I don’t think so.


You can also buy software that claims to free you from distractions, but if Bird is right the distractions are in your mind, not in the world. No matter how advanced the software, a mind that’s bored will always find a way to do something else. Writing often and well requires dedication, just like doing anything often and well does. Every device with an off switch is “distraction free” if you choose to flip that switch. Every app has a close button. Take some responsibility. Sure, gadgets and software may help you, but at some point the problem is you, your commitment and your habits. Larry Bird bet on his own mind, the one thing you have upgrade yourself.

Artists don’t get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working. — Stephen DeStaebler

I don’t always want to write. Writing is hard work. But I know the rewards are worth the effort and I work up the motivation to stick to my commitments to myself and put time to write ahead of other things. It’s only by practicing with your mind, the most important software you will ever have, that you can control what distracts you and what doesn’t. Some of the most important things we want in life can not be bought or sold as a product: control over our own attention is one of them.


12 Responses to “The Distraction-Free Life?”

  1. Phil Simon

    Nice post, Scott. I’m with you. Technology is both part of the problem but not necessarily the solution.

    We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.
    —Marshall McLuhan

  2. Dan Szuc

    Perhaps people are distracted is that they dont have a sense of purpose to begin with?


    Perhaps distractions allow us to explore as we refine purpose?

    Happy Holidays!

    1. Scott

      Distractions are great – I’m a big fan of wandering, playing, exploring and dabbling. I complain when people start blaming distractions for why they’re not doing something else – it’s not the existence of distractions that are the problem (there are always distractions, and good ones!)

  3. James Greig

    Hemingway might have a strong word or two to say about the Hemingwrite.

    1. Scott

      I’m sure he would. From what I remember he liked to write by hand, standing up, and often after drinking a fair amount.

  4. Scott

    “A novice asked Raphael with what he mixed his paints. The master replied ‘with brains'” – Hardy Cross

  5. Don Browning

    To me concentration is thinking. An interest in something is usually my start. No pain involved because thinking is a joy. Try trusting yourself in thought and see the wonderful outcome. I believe each person has genius. I believe everyone can run backwards faster than I can run forwards in what they do best. At a very young age I learned to trust my thinking by watching my father think.

    Try to have fun with thoughts as Scott suggests. Once deep in thought wonderful things happen. Do what you can to protect this wonderful zone and trust yourself.

  6. muthuri

    Really inspiring. This is news to me and good news for that matter. Iv felt so renewed with this topic mr berkun, now i that know my problem am sure its half solved..



Leave a Reply

* Required